When I was a young lawyer many years go, I had my first DUI trial. In fact, it was only the second trial of my career. I was completely focused on preparing questions for cross-examination, anticipating evidentiary objections, rehearsing my opening statement in front of the mirror, and outlining my closing argument. The last thing that crossed my mind was what my client would wear to court. Much to my chagrin, Mr. Defendant showed up to his jury trial not only wearing a hat in court, but a hat promoting a well-known beer from St. Louis. This defendant was convicted, and that day I learned that "fashion advisor" is an integral part of any courtroom lawyer's job.
What is fashionable for certain venues can be far from appropriate for court. One time I had a case outside of Centre County, and seated in the crowded courtroom was an attractive young woman in an elegant dress. It was the kind of dress you would see on the red carpet of an awards gala. In other words, a lot of cleavage and leg were on display. Often times, girlfriends of incarcerated defendants get all dolled up for court, so I assumed that was the case here. As it turned out, I was wrong. She was actually a defendant herself.
Had Ms. Defendant stopped by to talk to Joan and Melissa Rivers upon her entry to the courthouse, I am sure that these fashionistas would have proclaimed Ms. Defendant to be fabulous. But the judge was nothing like Melissa and Joan Rivers. The judge was outraged by Ms. Defendant's sexy attire, and in a lengthy tirade, proceeded to describe in detail on the record the various body parts Ms. Defendant had on display, as he chastised her choice of attire in front of a packed courtroom. The judge still accepted her plea agreement for probation, but it must have been an embarrassing and humiliating experience for Ms. Defendant.
The defendant who was too sexy for court and the guy who wore a beer logo to his DUI trial will always be engrained in my memory, but there are other ways to run afoul of the courtroom fashion laws. Certain judges in central Pennsylvania have even been known to kick people out of court for dressing inappropriately. The typical examples of offending fashion choices include shorts, tank-tops, sandals, flip flops and pants that are so baggy that the wearer's underwear becomes a central focus of the outfit. Most judges will take a pragmatic approach, and not exclude from the courtroom defendants, who are legally required to be there. That being said, clothing choice will certainly affect the perception of a criminal defendant by a judge or jury.
So what should you wear to court if you are facing criminal charges? Ideally, you should dress like a lawyer. The ideally dressed client will look so professional that an outside observer will assume that the defendant is actually an attorney. There are many instances, especially in DUI cases, where I am not sure if a person is an out-of-town lawyer I don't know, or a defendant. Of course, not everyone can look like a lawyer. If you are college-aged, that is just not possible. Also, if you are not used to wearing a suit and tie, you will probably not look natural in such an outfit; however, you should still wear a suit to court, if you have one.
I represent a lot of students from Penn State and other schools, many of whom are facing summary offense charges in magisterial district court, and who also do not yet own a suit. In those cases, I tell them to just wear a nice button-down shirt. Likewise, if a client is likely going to be approved for ARD and does not own a suit, a nice button-down shirt and dress pants will suffice. Any time a client is going to trial, however, wearing a suit and tie is imperative. You would be surprised by how many nice suits are available at thrift stores like Goodwill at a very affordable price, so there is no need to drop thousands of dollars to acquire appropriate courtroom attire.
Just remember, when you go to court, you are dressing for the judge and sometimes the jury. You are not dressing for approval from your peers. If you are not sure about an outfit, your lawyer should be able to give you advice. Of course, some lawyers themselves are habitual violators of the rules of fashion, but that is a subject for another blog.
Matt McClenahen is an attorney State College, Pennsylvania, with years of courtroom experience. He limits his practice to criminal law. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/